Ideas for Lent: Fasting, Prayer, & Generosity

The Lent tradition began as early as the 2nd-Century. It is a 40-day season of meditation and repentance building to Easter celebration. Whether you are seeking, seasoned, or deconstructed, Lent is a perfect time to let God shape your life in new ways.

Historically, Christians have used three broad categories of practices to engage in this season: fasting, prayer, and generosity.

These practices are external means for shaping one’s internal soul and life. Fasting removes things to create space in your heart and life, prayer is a way to fill that interior space, and generosity is giving out of the overflow we trust is there.

Below, you’ll find ideas for incorporating these practices into your Lent. Pick one, or several. The important thing is to try for consistency, and use times of frustration or faltering to meditate on your limitations and God’s grace.

Fasting

Fasting is neither a diet nor a “detox” from something your life. Going without normal, good things for a time reveals to us why we turn to them so much and just how strong our desire is for them. As we refrain and limit ourselves, we feel discomfort or unmet desire and we use those moments to turn our minds to God. We are supposed to feel weaker than normal, as this brings humility and awareness of our mortality and frailty.

Common Fasts

If you’ve never given something up for Lent or this feels a little daunting, these common Lenten fasts are a good start.

  • Sweets
  • Meat
  • Coffee
  • Alcohol
  • Social media
  • Cursing
  • Podcasts and/or news (or just politics altogether)
  • A particular game or app
  • A favorite TV show, or TV after a certain time
  • Jaywalking, or other little illegalities like driving 5mph above the speed limit, etc.

Creative Fasts

  • Snooze button: get up with your alarm.
  • Speed: If you speed up audiobooks or podcasts, slow them to 1x (or slower).
  • Color: Turn your phone screen black-and-white.
  • Apps: Uninstall or hide as many apps as you can, and see how few you can use.
  • Starve the quantified self. Don’t track calories, sleep, steps, or other metrics we use for some sense of control.
  • Late nights: go to bed before midnight.
  • Eating out by yourself: only eat out with others.
  • Unnecessarily defending yourself–even if you’re ultimately “right” (yes, this can be taken too far. It’s meant to combat our obsession with our own reputations, but be wise and safe.)
  • Fast from all media not by minorities or some other marginalized group.
  • Non-essential trash and waste: only use re-usable things and get as close to zero-waste as possible.
  • Don’t take your phone with you into the bathroom. (This is way harder than you think.)

Deeper Fasts

However great those ideas are, each is still technically a luxury, and we pretty quickly get used to being without them. Another level of fasting, then, is to fast more basic, everyday aspects of life. (I’ve not done any of these, but I trust they would be fruitful to those who try.)

  • Fast from all food but water on one or two days a week, or only eat what you need to survive.
  • Make water your only beverage through Lent.
  • Take short, cold showers or set your thermostat colder.
  • Turn off all screens (or even all electronics–including artificial light) after a certain time in the evening.
  • Exercise with extra intensity.
  • Abstain from any purchases of material goods that are not absolutely necessary.
  • Don’t add seasonings to your food, including salt–even while cooking.
  • Give up music with words, or music entirely.
  • Fast from cars during Lent (even Uber), and only walk or take public transit.
  • Make Scripture the only text you take time to read–no news, books, social media, etc.

Prayer

Prayer is not just “talking with God”, but it can also be a life posture–an awareness of God and a maintaining of connection with God’s Spirit in you.

It can be structured liturgical prayers, speaking short prayers over and over again, prayerfully letting music fill your mind, or (perhaps most profoundly) sitting in periods of deep and complete silence, with no actual words passing between you and God–just communing. Here are some ideas and tips for praying during Lent:

My church offers daily morning and evening prayer that will guide you in prayer, Scripture, and confession. Also, Biola University’s amazing Lent Project gives reflections, art, and meditation through the season.

Schedule your prayer. Determine the time, place, and even ambiance (lighting, seating location, posture, smell, noise, etc.). Try and stick with it. If you miss some days, that’s fine. Just pick it up when you can.

Keep a journal. This affects a different part of your brain than reading, thinking, and spoken prayer, and is a small way to embody prayer. It is also something you can look back on in the future.

Sustained, regular periods of silence. This is hard, but worth it. Science says it takes about 12 continuous minutes before our brains experience the benefits of meditation, so aim for that. But don’t feel bad if you need to start with 5. Here’s a book that can help, and here’s an app I use.

Doing things in a mindful, prayerful way. Pick a short prayer you can repeat mentally as you do everyday activities—commuting, showering, changing diapers, doing dishes. Church history has often used “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” or just the name Jesus. As you do this, see where God shows up: an emotion, an inspiration, or in a metaphor with what’s around you.

Surround yourself with things that facilitate this type of awareness:

  • Books: Most Lents, I pick a Cormac McCarthy novel to read. I’d also recommend J. Todd Billings’ The End of the Christian Life and using its free Lent guide to meditate on mortality and seeing God in it.
  • Music: There is my own Lent Playlist (Spotify // YouTube Music), Mozart’s Requiem, Rachmaninov’s Vespers, the Memento Mori playlist, Cool Hand Luke’s Of Man, or search for “Lent” in your music service of choice and you’ll find hundreds of options.
  • Art: Find pieces that inspire reflection or turn your focus to Christ, the Cross, human suffering, or your own mortality. Print them out, make them your phone wallpaper, and share them with others.
  • Film & TV: Watch things that keep you in touch with your depths and bring your thoughts to God and the world’s suffering and your place in it.
  • Smell: Pick a candle, essential oil, or incense that inspires reflection and slowing down.

Use outside guidance, both in text and audio. Sometimes we just don’t know what to say in prayer. Trying to think of what to pray is hard, and silence is even harder. But Christians have always used the prayers and guidance of others to help with this, namely in three ways:

  • Liturgy: I don’t mean the content of what’s prayed, but any basic, consistent structure for prayer. It can be as simple as the ACTS method–Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication–or this popular method of praying for an hour in 5-minute chunks. Google for more.
  • Daily Offices: This is prayer that is almost entirely written out for you. Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours series is my main guidance for prayer time. The Book of Common Prayer is a trusted and widely used approach and you can easily versions of it with the websites and apps of Forward Movement or Mission St. Clare. There are also audio resources! I use the apps from Hallow and Lectio 365, as well as the Divine Office podcast, though Pray As You Go is a really good and popular option.
  • Devotionals & Praying Scripture: Another technique is to read something and use it as a launching pad for prayer. Use a Psalm and go one verse at a time, praying with the themes or content of that verse, and then move to the next. You can also use one of many Lent devotionals out there. You read a reflection, quote, or piece of poetry and then pray based on what it inspires in you. I have particularly enjoyed Chuck DeGroat’s Falling Into Goodness, Malcolm Guite’s Word in the Wilderness, and Brian Zahn’s The Unvarnished Jesus.

Generosity

Generosity is often experienced as a result and overflow from the shaping of other practices. I know it’s hard to “do generosity” in a way that doesn’t at times feel rote, forced, inauthentic, less than we could do, or wrongly-motivated.

But still, our embodiment matters. Even as we recognize our mixed motives, if we wait until we have the “correct” inner state before we move into these things, we’re likely never to do them.

So here are some ideas for embodying generosity, even as we recognize there’s much work to be done in our hearts to free us from materialism, selfishness, and closed-heartedness.

Communal

  • Find opportunities for service in a local congregation. This is a time when many religious organizations have different endeavors going on.
  • Connect with your neighborhood’s community development corporation and how you and others might care for your neighbors. There are often volunteer activities including tutoring and street cleaning. (Or just clean up your block on your own.)
  • Commit to learning the name of and giving money to every single panhandler that asks you for help. (This also means thinking ahead and always having cash on you).
  • For every meal, only eat half and give the other half to someone you come across in need.

Personal

  • Each week donate money to a different organization
  • Have a “Lent of Yes”, where you say yes to any request made of you (within reason). If a coworker asks you to do a favor, if a friend asks for help moving, or if someone wants to do a different activity than you, then say yes without complaint.
  • Every week (or day!) give away unnecessary items in your house and life through traditional outlets like thrift stores or online communities like Buy Nothing.
  • Commit to not buying any material possession for the entirety of Lent. Try and end Lent with less stuff than you began it.
  • Fast from spending money on yourself entirely and/or only doing so when you can also spend it on others. Or, whenever you buy something, buy two to share.
  • Extend a more generous spirit to yourself. Within reason, let yourself off the hook for things that often drag you into shame and self-criticism. Take time in a journal, prayer, or therapy to identify things in you or your past for which you need to extend forgiveness to yourself.

Relational

  • Apologize for past wrongs done to others (actually reach out to these people, unless doing so would cause harm). Express forgiveness to others that have wronged you. Do both with no expectation on the other person.
  • Take what you’re fasting and give it to others. Fasting from coffee? Buy a box of coffee for your coworkers. Meat? Give a neighbor a roast.
  • At a food or coffee shop, offer to pay for the order of the person behind you in line.
  • Think of those people in your life, past, or community that you know are lonely or marginalized. They may be mentally ill, of a lower economic status, or just awkward. Give your time and attention to them–and substantively so. No tokenism, but real intentional time, relationship, and service.
  • Only eat out when you can pay for someone else eating with you. Otherwise, don’t eat out alone and only cook at home.
  • Babysit for a couple in your community who you know have not had a night out together for quite a while.
  • Affirm someone every day of Lent in specific, substantive ways.
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